Premier François Legault was visibly upbeat on Tuesday — more than he has been in a while — as he laid out a timeline for the province’s reopening.
And why wouldn’t he be? After imposing a curfew on much of the province since January, shutting down schools in some regions and keeping restaurants, bars and gyms closed, Quebec has become the first province to release a full-fledged plan with dates to loosen restrictions.
(Saskatchewan earlier released a roadmap tied to vaccination rates, with no firm timeline).
The first step in Quebec’s plan, starting May 28, is to lift the curfew where it still exists, including Montreal, and allow outdoor gatherings on private property and sit-down service on restaurant patios.
On May 29, the province will also be the first to allow fans back to an NHL arena — with 2,500 permitted at the Bell Centre for Game 6 of the Leafs-Canadiens playoffs series (if the Habs haven’t already won).
If all goes well, gyms and indoor dining will reopen a few days later, on May 31.
By the middle of June, Legault said most regions will be out of the so-called red and orange levels of restrictions, and at the yellow level, which means people from two different households can gather indoors and bars can reopen.
There are, however, notes of caution about Quebec’s plan, sounded by experts and even Montreal’s own public health director, who has helped the city so far avoid a third wave.
Dates vs. vaccination rates
Quebec has been subject to some of the strictest measures in the country and, clearly, the timeline provided a much-needed sense of hope to a weary public.
There’s some trepidation too.
“It’s a move in the right direction,” said Johnny Zatylnyhalo, out for a bike ride on the Lachine Canal on Wednesday. “I think we just have to take it step by step.”
In general, Quebec is headed in the right direction, with daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths all on the decline, and the latest projections from Quebec’s health research institute, the INESSS, suggest that trend will continue.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for the province that has had the most deaths per capita in the country.
In the days and weeks leading up to the announcement, Legault said he favoured Saskatchewan’s approach, where the lifting of measures is tied to the rate of vaccination.
But in the end, Quebec’s roadmap is a date-based timeline, with the expectation that the vaccination rate and an improving situation in hospitals will allow measures to be gradually lifted.
Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, said there are clear drawbacks to that choice.
“I think we’ve all seen over the course of this pandemic enough instances where there have been unexpected twists and turns,” he said.
“All of a sudden there’s a shortage of a vaccine. All of a sudden there’s an outbreak in one area of a particularly transmissible variant.”
Laying out a clear timeline has obvious benefits: it will allow for the province’s long-suffering owners of restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses to make preparations and hire back staff, and for the public to make plans for the summer. (The restaurants had actually hoped for more warning).
But, Oughton said, “once you commit yourself to a hard date, if you have to change, then you’re going to get people who will come back to you and say, ‘Well, you said,’ and that makes it a little bit more difficult.”
The advantage of Saskatchewan’s performance-tied reopening, he said, is that it serves as motivation to the public.
“It’s sort of a way to incentivize, before we reach those levels, to continue to follow the measures in place and to continue to go get vaccinated,” he said.
Kim Lavoie, Canada Research Chair of behavioural medicine at Université du Québec à Montréal, worries that delaying the planned reopening would be difficult if there is indeed a setback.
Quebec was already forced to tighten back restrictions in much of the province earlier this year after a spike in cases.
“That has an impact not only on business and everybody, but also psychologically,” Lavoie said.
“So there’s that risk tying it to a certain date and then having to pull back, right?”
A word of caution from Montreal
Quebec’s vaccination rate is climbing quickly; 61 per cent of adults have received a dose of vaccine and another 14 per cent have an appointment booked. But the province hasn’t begun to vaccinate teens, and only three per cent of the population has received two doses.
The province made the decision early to delay the second dose and send vaccines from Montreal to Quebec City, which had a spike in cases earlier this year.
Those decisions paid off, but Montreal is now lagging behind other parts of the province in terms of its vaccination rate.
On Wednesday, Dr. Mylène Drouin, Montreal’s public health director, appeared uncomfortable with the idea of tying the reopening to dates, rather than the situation on the ground.
Although Montreal has been able to avoid a third wave, she noted the city is still considered a red zone, at maximum alert for restrictions.
“I’ve always said that I don’t put dates on things, but I am confident that we will, in the coming weeks, be able to reduce the rate of infection and stabilize it,” she told Radio-Canada’s Tout un matin.
“As soon as we allow indoor events, there is a risk. We increase contacts. We can’t do the yo-yo in reopening, so we’ll have to be fairly careful.”
WATCH | Quebec will start to lift restrictions later this month:
Later in the day, Health Minister Christian Dubé said the province is comfortable with its end-of-month target. Dubé said he’s confident Montreal will see the rate of infection decrease.
“The chances are really high and that’s why we presented the plan the way we did, and the premier insisted that we were able to respect the dates. But we have to continue to do the same work that has been done by Quebecers,” he said.
Given the huge influx of vaccines, Dubé also said appointments for second doses will be moved up once the first round of vaccinations is complete.
“If we continue like this, we should have really good news at the end of May.”
But even he sounded a note of caution. “There are always things that can happen. We’ve seen it with this pandemic, in the last year, there can always be surprises.”